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Native Son

Richard Wright

Book Three (part two)

Book Three (part one)

Book Three (part three)

From the inquest through Bigger’s meeting with Max

Summary

The authorities lead Bigger to the courtroom for the inquest. Mrs. Dalton testifies that the earring found in her furnace is a family heirloom that she had given to Mary. She states that she and her husband have donated millions of dollars to black schools. Jan follows Mrs. Dalton to the stand. During questioning, the coroner insinuates that Jan promised Bigger sex with white women if Bigger joined the Communist Party. Max argues that these kinds of questions are sensational and designed only to inflame public opinion, but his objections are overruled.

Mr. Dalton takes the stand and Max is permitted to question him. As Max knows that Mr. Dalton owns a controlling share in the company that manages the building where Bigger’s family lives, he asks Dalton why black tenants pay higher rents than whites for the same kinds of apartments. Dalton replies that there is a housing shortage on the South Side. Max retorts that there are areas of the city without housing shortages, and Dalton replies that he thought black tenants preferred living together on the South Side. Max then succeeds in making Dalton admit that he refuses to rent to black tenants in other neighborhoods. He accuses Dalton of giving some of the real estate profits to black schools merely to alleviate his guilty conscience. Before dismissing Mr. Dalton, Max asks him if the living conditions of Bigger’s family might have contributed to the death of his daughter. Dalton cannot comprehend the question.

The coroner exhibits Bessie’s body to the jurors. Bigger knows that the authorities are using Bessie only to ensure that he will get the death penalty for killing Mary. Bigger becomes angry that they are using Bessie in death just as Bessie’s white employer used her while she was alive. He feels that the whites are using both him and Bessie as if they were mere property.

Bigger is indicted for rape and murder. When the police take him to the Dalton home and ask him to reenact the crime, he backs himself against the wall and refuses. Outside, a mob screams for his death. Bigger sees a burning cross across the street. He feels that Hammond, in giving him the cross to wear, has betrayed him: the preacher has made him feel a kind of hope, but the burning cross leaves him hopeless once again. Back in his jail cell, Bigger rips off the cross and flings it away. When Hammond tries to visit him again, Bigger furiously refuses him. He vows never to trust anyone again.

Bigger asks to see a newspaper, which reports that he is certain to receive the death penalty. A hysterical black prisoner is brought to Bigger’s cell, demanding the return of his papers. Another prisoner tells Bigger that this hysterical prisoner went crazy from studying too much at a university. The man had been trying to understand why blacks were treated so badly and had been picked up at the post office, where he was waiting to speak to the president. His screaming disturbs other prisoners, and he is taken away on a stretcher.

Max visits Bigger in his cell. Hopeless, Bigger tells Max that none of his efforts will be of use. Bigger feels destined to die to appease the public, and, therefore, has no possibly of winning the trial. Max tries to get Bigger to trust him. Despite his best efforts to avoid opening up and trusting anyone, Bigger does end up trusting Max, but still believes Max’s efforts will prove futile. Max then asks Bigger why he killed Mary. Excited at the prospect of finally feeling understood, Bigger tells Max that he did not rape Mary and hints that he killed her by accident. When Max presses him further about his feelings, Bigger states that Mary’s unorthodox behavior frightened and shamed him. When Max points out that Bigger could have avoided the murder by trying to explain himself to Mrs. Dalton, Bigger explains that he could not help himself and that it was as if someone else had stepped inside him and acted for him.

Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.

Bigger snorts at the idea that the Daltons think they have changed something by donating Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club, as he and his friends planned most of their robberies while hanging around the Club. Bigger says the church did not help him either, as it preached happiness only in the afterlife while he longed for happiness in this world. He also believes that once he is executed, there will be no afterlife. Bigger tells Max that he took a chance and lost, but that it is over now and he does not want anyone to feel sorry for him. Max decides to enter a plea of “not guilty” to buy some time to plead Bigger’s case.

Analysis

The brief appearance of a crazed inmate in Bigger’s cell gives us another example of the narrow range of choices with which Bigger has grown up. We have seen some of these limited choices already: Bigger’s mother attempts to get by with religion and the hope for a better life beyond this world; Bessie relies on alcohol and dancing to ease her pain; and Bigger retreats behind his wall, lashing out violently when pushed too far. With the mad inmate, Wright shows us the danger of another option: attempting to tackle the problems of race relations using pure reason. The former student is driven mad by looking at the race problem closely and trying to understand the situation of blacks in America. Wright implies that approaching the situation rationally is as dangerous as lashing out with a gun—and, in some ways, less effective.

Though Bigger feels the injustice of his situation intensely, he is uneducated and inarticulate, and therefore sometimes unable to convey his feelings adequately. Although his understanding becomes clearer as the novel moves on, he still struggles—even within his own thoughts—for a way to describe his world. Wright sidesteps these limitations of Bigger’s character by creating the character of the mad student, who is intelligent enough to be able to voice his own philosophical perspectives on Bigger and the world that has created him. Furthermore, at the inquest, Max is able to make explicit the hypocrisy of the Daltons and their charity, something Bigger has sensed but has not expressed outright. As a white man, Max is also able to attack Dalton directly, something a black man in Wright’s Chicago would not have done. Max mocks Dalton’s pathetic gesture of benevolence—his gift of Ping-Pong tables to the Boys’ Club—and makes clear that Dalton is a major part of a system that corrals black tenants into the ghetto, creating the social conditions that have produced Bigger. Dalton is blind to these allegations, just as he is to Max’s assertion that his role in creating these conditions makes him complicit in Mary’s murder.

It is clear that the authorities do not consider Bessie’s rape and murder to be as important as the murder of Mary Dalton. They use Bessie’s battered body merely as evidence to establish the larger crime, which, in the eyes of the public, is the outrageousness of Bigger’s act against white society. We get the impression that Bigger’s trial is only a sensational spectacle for the public, and not an attempt to serve justice. The authorities’ attempts to force Bigger to reenact his crime in Mary’s bedroom reinforce this interpretation of the trial. We see that such ostensible evidence gathering is largely pointless, as Bigger’s guilt has been decided before he is ever arrested. Instead, the reenactment serves only to provide sensational photographs to print in the next racist news article about the trial.

Max’s acknowledgement of Bigger as a human being allows Bigger to talk—and even think—about himself in ways he never has before. Throughout Native Son, Wright focuses on this idea that physical oppression leads to psychological repression. Bigger has spent his entire life trying to hide behind a wall, attempting to shut out the realities of life and his feelings about these grim realities. Such repression has left him with violence as his only outlet. Max, however, by simply recognizing Bigger’s life and feelings, allows Bigger to shed this burden of repression that he has carried for so long. Bigger can now, at least tentatively, emerge from behind his wall and start to examine his world for what it really is.

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